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First Amendment conference explored diminishing local news as a 'crisis of democracy'

Susan King, the Dean of the School of Media and Journalism, speaks at the First Amendment Day opening ceremony in 2015.

Susan King, the Dean of the School of Media and Journalism, speaks at the First Amendment Day opening ceremony in 2015.

A two-day conference at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center over the weekend examined the role of the First Amendment in creating an informed society and ensuring the needs of democracy.

The event, hosted by the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, along with the First Amendment Law Review and the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, featured a variety of speakers who work in media.

At the beginning of the symposium, Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said people have seen newspapers, particularly in local areas, diminishing — which she called a crisis for democracy. 

“We don’t just want to document the end,” King said. “What is the sustainability model for written news in our communities that will keep democracy strong?”

David Ardia, faculty co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy and an associate professor of law, said people can’t just sit back and expect the information that they need to be available to them.

He said the last few years have shown people that the primary source of information about the world, government and communities is produced by journalists who are struggling. 

Social media and other forms of sharing digital information have increased, Ardia said, but the same high-quality information is becoming harder to find. 

“These are issues that are very difficult,” Ardia said. “There needs to be a multi-disciplinary conversation, because the challenges we face are multi-disciplinary.” 

The conference brought together a variety of scholars and media professionals. 

Among these professionals were author and journalist Robert Kaiser and Leonard Downie Jr., a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. 

When introducing Kaiser and Downie as keynote speakers for the first day of the conference, Ardia said they have a combined 90 years of experience at The Washington Post. 

In addition to their extensive bios, Kaiser and Downie co-wrote “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” in 2002 and are working on a follow-up to the book. 

Kaiser and Downie discussed the challenges facing journalism today, the transition to online journalism and the impact of social media.

Downie said the different technological ways that large news organizations work to sustain themselves are not always possible for local news organizations. The potentially promising news, he said, is the increase of non-profit news organizations throughout the country. 

“This collaboration amongst news organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, is also very important for the future of journalism,” Downie said. 

Ardia said the conference is about what the government, journalists and individuals should do to address the needs of American democracy. He said Americans have seen a decline in the trust of the news. 

“I think journalists have not been willing in the past to talk about why their work in important,” Ardia said. “We need to educate the public on why journalism is important.”

He said people have a short attention span, and it’s getting shorter as a result of social media.

“Why it is important we understand what goes on in our state government? Why is it important we understand what goes on in our courts? Why is it important that these issues are reported, that we get access to the information?" Ardia said. "I think journalists, especially young journalists today can make that case to convince fellow students and others that this work is important.”

university@dailytarheel.com

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